Jul 03 2012

Breathless: Why did Anthony Shadid Die?

A death of a journalist always hits our large community of correspondents hard and the death of a celebrated war reporter like Anthony Shadid, hits even harder. Shadid, 43, was a brave and unique journalist and winner of two Pulitzer prizes for his war reporting from Iraq. He was injured a number of times in the course of his professional life, including a near-fatal bullet injury in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2002. He died in Syria on 16 February this year and this is, pretty much, where the facts in consensus regarding the circumstances of his death end.

The first news of his death described it as caused by a fit of asthma, a condition Shadid had lived with for years. The fit seemed to have been prompted by his allergy to horses and the presence of horses in close proximity to where he collapsed. His habit of smoking could have contributed to the worsening of his condition.

But in a speech on June 23rd, during an acceptance speech on behalf of the family at a banquet honouring Shadid, his cousin, Dr. Edward Shadid of Oklahoma City, challenged all the facts regarding Anthony Shadid’s death, from the medical causes to the degree of his willingness to carry out the mission he was given by his editors at the New York Times.

“Just 11 months after Anthony’s deeply traumatic kidnapping, for which he received no counselling or treatment for possible PTSD, The New York Times insisted that Anthony illegally infiltrate Syria in a poorly planned, dangerously risky operation. His editors overruled Anthony’s objections and failed to provide equipment he had requested.” According to Dr. Shadid, Anthony told his wife before he left for Syria: “The phone call the night before he left (Turkey, for Syria), there was screaming and slamming on the phone in discussions with editors,” Dr. Shadid said.

“It was at that time that Anthony called his wife and gave his last haunting directive that if ‘anything happens to me I want the world to know The New York Times killed me’.”

Dr. Shadid claims that Anthony refused to go on medical grounds but was told by the foreign editor that he would “get a lot of exercise” on his mission. It is also argued that he asked for certain camping equipment for his journey and was refused.

In his speech Dr. Shadid, who is a medical doctor, also argued that the symptoms Anthony suffered from prior to his death were more compatible with a heart attack than with an asthmatic fit.

Dr. Shadid points a finger at the prevailing gang-ho ethos among and about journalists, according to which the good journalist is up for anything and is more then willing to risk his or her life for a story. He quoted former NYT executive Bill Keller and others who maintain that “great journalists” always go into danger, “that’s what they do.” Dr Shadid also argued that Anthony had an argument with his editor about his travel arrangements and camping equipment.

The New York Times denies those allegations. In a statement following Dr. Shadid’s speech the paper said:

“Anthony’s death was a tragedy and we appreciate the enduring grief that his family feels. With respect, we disagree with Ed Shadid’s version of the facts.  The Times does not pressure reporters to go into combat zones. Anthony was an experienced, motivated correspondent. He decided whether, how and when to enter Syria and was told by his editors, including on the day of the trip, that he should not make the trip if he felt it was not advisable for any reason.”

Eric Wemple of the Washington Post presented a snippet of the view of Anthony Shadid’s wife Nada Bakri to CNN saying that she is “a little bit mad with journalism this can hardly, in itself, be seen as a direct accusation against anybody in particular.

Tyler Hicks, who accompanied Shadid on his last story, told Matt Pearce of the LA Times:

“We both campaigned very hard to go on this assignment,” which seems to contradict Dr. Shadid’s claim that Anthony was reluctant to go.

It is, of course, impossible to get a clear picture of Anthony Shadid’s last days out of this jigsaw of statements.

Was Dr. Shadid’s speech, despite reports of its measured and level headed nature, an understandable outburst of a pained family member, or a damning depiction of the pressure staff journalists undergo to risk their lives in order to keep their jobs? The future might bring further evidence either way. But he no doubt left behind a legacy of courageous and uncompromising reporting under fire.

Jun 25 2012

BBC News for Sale?

The Independent reports today that BBC news reporters have been given a new task: making money. According to the Independent, Peter Horrocks, the Director of BBC Global News, has written to journalists saying:  “I would like each of you to contribute to the delivery of these objectives, with the income objective, let us know if you have any ideas on how we can strengthen our commercial focus and grow income”. Horrocks, says the paper, made it clear that this will form a key part of their job appraisal.

BBC users may have been doubly surprise by the news. As far as they are aware, they all pay for the BBC by coughing up an annual licence fee of £140.50 per household. The least they expect for in return is a news producing outlet which is concerned only with providing the news as it breaks and maintaining the BBC’s brand as arguably the best broadcasting service in the world.

Another question is how is this money-generating news-making to be exercised, exactly?

The BBC’s World News channel, it transpires, generates money from advertising and from deals with international broadcasters, hotel chains and other distributors. The urge to financially justify itself makes it vulnerable to pressure to focus its coverage on potentially profitable areas of the world. The BBC international website (BBC.com) also carries advertising outside of the UK.

What would be rendered legitimate in order to grow this revenue line? One wouldn’t be as heretic as to suggest that BBC watchers, even those subjected to the BBC World News version, might be made to live on a diet of light news about hotel chains opening branches in exotic places and similar forms of advertisements dressed up as news. It is hard to believe that anybody in the ‘beeb’ would compromise the most obvious asset of the organisation, its credibility as a news provider, for another ‘bob’ from an advertiser.

At the same time, asking journalists to consider how the material they gather could be packaged to best address the special interests of the audience of a fellow international broadcaster who may, intern, be interested in purchasing this content, is completely kosher by any stretch of the imagination. Conducting some extra research in order to cover an aspect of a story that could intrigue audiences in a specific part of the world is not something to be condemned.

Due to the lack of clarification as to the exact objective of this new directive, however, no wonder many, in the BBC and outside of it, see this as a worrying development.

The BBC has been between a rock and a hard place for many years. Over the last decade it has been under current pressure to “justify” its existence as a national broadcasting corporation of international appeal. What does it do, wondered its critics, that commercial news providers don’t do? And if it is so great, why can’t it make itself marketable enough to play by the market rules?

But what makes the BBC such a huge brand name, known literally in most households across the world, is exactly its commitment to cover news whether advertisers want it to be broadcast or no, and whether the public wants to be exposed to it or not. It addresses not only our right to know, but to an extent also imposes our duty, as citizens of the world, to learn unpleasant facts, some of which might spoil our dinners.

There are still, living among us, people who remember listening to the BBC secretly, on the “wireless”, behind the frontiers of the Second World War, behind the Iron curtain of the cold war, out of locked cupboards and hidden basements under constant fear in some of the worst dictatorships in history. There are still, living among us behind the visible and invisible wars of the world’s most oppressive regimes, some who still do. This is a huge heritage to carry. It is probably the greatest cultural gift Britain has given the world. It has also, together with other veteran pioneering news organisations, set the benchmark to how we consider and judge news reporting.

It is this benchmark that now binds commercial news providers too. The ethos which news providers look up to and expect is that of transparency and impartiality. When a commercial is dished up to us we want it to be delivered under a different title and we have learned to identify commercial content that is being infiltrated into our news and sneer at it.

Those standards are hard to maintain in a world where the business of news is competitive; where the pond seems to be getting smaller and smaller and the news sharks are hungry and large. But journalism is founded on two forms of separation: between fact and opinion, as well as between news providers and advertisement buyers. Keeping those separations strictly in place is not only the ethical thing to do; it is also the only way to maintain the trust of the public, which is the only safeguard of revenues.

All this is not to say that the BBC cannot use its real assets – namely its vast collection of savvy journalism and trusted information and analysis – in order to gather some additional revenue, both for the organisation as such and for its journalists. The BBC can easily and with relatively little investment and substantial potential rewards, can create a wire service, a venture which it has surprisingly avoided so far.

There is also nothing to stop the BBC from enabling its correspondents to moonlight for other carefully chosen news organisations under the BBC’s brand name, as long as those undertakings do not clash with the reporters commitments to their home organisations. There are endless opportunities to change, modernise and even make profit without compromising the BBC’s ethos, ethics and reputation. But those avenues should be carefully thought through without making the journalists and audiences, feel they are being sold out.

Jun 21 2012

Are Local Newspapers Facing a Renaissance?

The mystery that is the future of newspapers keeps boggling the minds of many in the industry. The demise of the physical “paper” element seems inevitable. It is always a wonder that the paper versions of the “news” are still to be found. The answer to “what will people read on the train” has been found in mobile phones and tablets. London’s underground is about to complete the installation of WiFi which would enable passengers to browse underground, hence removing the last impediment to digitising the catching-up-while-commuting experience.

Newspapers have been bracing themselves for the move to 100% digital versions for over 10 years, but the most common sentence heard in this context – “we are still trying to figure out how all this will make any money” – is still heard often. In the meantime, a temporary answer has been found by investing in technology while radically cutting the spending on content.

Across the industry there are fewer and fewer journalists with regular jobs, and fewer and fewer paid contributors. While newspapers wait patiently for the gradual growth in willingness of reluctant advertises to pay more for online ads, they fully take advantage of the voluntary spirit of the internet; everybody wants to produce content and everybody wants it to appear under the respectable umbrella of an established newspaper, paying for it seems hardly necessary.

The fact that the production of opinion is so much cheaper and so much less accountable, than the production of news, led to a new convenient theory: we all know what’s going on because it is on CNN/BBC/SKY or “on the internet”, therefore what we are looking for now is commentators who would “make sense out of it all” for us.

The outcome is that almost every huge news story in the world ends up being covered, at least at some of its crucial moments, weeks or months, by a very small number of correspondents who are actually on the ground. Their reports get mixed in with a much larger body of content from underpaid, in most cases, if paid at all, commentators and witnesses.

The attempts to increase income, rather than cut spending, on online journalism suffers constant difficulties. Advertising grows slowly and so far most users refuse outright to pay for content, least of all for news. The “pay wall” model is struggling, though some newspaper are convinced that if they insist on keeping a certain amount of content behind the wall, their readers would eventually break and pay.

With all this at the background many were surprised to hear two months ago that billionaire Warren Buffett and his company Berkshire Hathaway decided to spend $142 million to purchase 63 dailies and weeklies from Media General Inc. of Richmond in the US.

“Warren Buffett buys newspapers. Is he nuts?”  asked Eric Wardle on the Washington Post’s opinion blog. Why spend money on those small local and regional papers, asks Wardle, and answers “while the big regional and national newspapers have elevated the crisis of newspapering to a countrywide obsession — complete with constant updates on circulation losses, drops in advertising revenues and the like — small weeklies and dailies have been plodding along. Not printing money, mind you, but making a living.” This makes sense to Wardale: “Slow, steady, unspectacular gains,” he concludes, “Sounds a lot like a Buffett investment.”

The need for local and specifically targeted news is there; the hunger exists among readers, and local advertisers can recognise their gain from cheap online advertising more easily and immediately than the large corporates. But the production of quality local news depends on employing local journalists and producing content independently and locally. Would Buffett withstand the temptation, to which most owners of local newspapers chains have long ago yielded, to produce unified content on the cheap for all his new outlets? If he does, his gamble might prove successful.

Gini Dietrich in Spinsucks sheds some light on Buffett’s business model, in his letter to publishers and editors of the newly acquired newspapers: “The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model and certain of our papers are already making progress in moving to something that makes more sense.” In short, Buffett believes that what did not work on the national and international news level, would work at the local level; that people would be willing to pay for exclusive near-home information.

It is a bold experiment, though the sum invested, while substantial, does not endanger Berkshire-Hathaway. Businessmen like Buffett are there to make money and money will not be made unless the newspapers provide quality content beyond competition. Such content that the specific demography it targets will be willing to pay for, and have trust in; the kind of trust that can be bought only by providing editors with complete editorial independence. Will Buffett let them thrive? The answer to this question could pave a new path for the future of journalism, or end in great disappointment. Many in the world’s media markets will be watching those little US southern newspapers very very carefully.

Jun 11 2012

Muckraking is Dead, Long Live Muckraking

A fascinating article by Mark Feldstein in the last issue of the American Journalism Review offers a timely reminder: the rumours regarding the death of investigative journalism have been premature. It might be long dead in the USA, it clearly has not been doing too well in Western Europe of late, but the gospel may well be coming from other places. Feldstein offers a tour de force of investigative stories which provoked political and popular developments in Eastern Europe, South East Asia and other hotspots in the developing world.

Feldstein mentions the murder of Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, alledgedly in connection with his exposés of corruption by then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his family. This attempt at shooting the messenger led to a rise, rather than a decline, in the number of investigative journalism outlets and reporters in the country. A similar increase of interest in journalistic exposures is registered in the Philippines, China, Latin America, and in the Arab world during and after the Arab Spring of 2011.

But while journalists in other countries are looking up to the West’s ethos of transparency and political etiquette and are sworn to clean the political stables in their countries of personal and institutional corruption, the West seems to be turning a bored and cold shoulder to this fine journalistic tradition. Feldstein quotes Mary Walton from an AJR article in 2010:  “Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether.”

Investigative journalism is considered, in the West, to be expensive to produce. The hours, weeks, sometimes months a reporter invests in thorough research, the expenses involved in travel, technology, interviewing witnesses and following leads and the danger of possible litigation are all strong deterrents for editors. In a world in which a newspaper, let alone a news broadcaster, is seen more and more as a “product” and a form of “entertainment”, they are at risk of being poised to provide the “consumers” only easy to digest news. Would Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have been allowed nowadays to peruse their Watergate investigation for nearly a year? An investigation which set a standard and created a legacy for a generation of journalists. In a recent Washington Post article by Leonard Downie Jr. analysing the affair 40 years on, in light of the dangers posed to “Muckraking”, as this brand of journalism is known in the US, leaves room for doubt.

Have we become complacent? Has our hunger for immediate news from the ground overtaken our thirst for in-depth, fearless investigative reporting? Do we prefer to watch one of those long, confessional, seemingly “informal” interviews with a prime minister making coffee in his kitchen and talking about the perks of raising his small children than reading an incisive probe into the sources of his political funding?

The awakening of investigative journalism in the second world seems to be driven by popular support, by a public desire to find out what the politicians and businesses are hiding, by a healthy sense of doubt and a quest for new, cleaner governance. They often operate at great risk. 17 investigative journalists were murdered in Russia in the last decade for their exposés. We see such phenomenon in other countries. Last week we had the story of Uri Blau, who is about to stand trial in Israel for his reporting, and others, in different countries, some of them enjoying the image of Western democracies. A whole generation in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe is looking for inspiration from the uncompromising journalistic ethoses of the West just as so many media vessels in the West are letting those ethoses drop.

There are quite a few organisations who strive to stop the deterioration of investigative journalism in the West. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in City University, London, for example, is dedicated to “bolster[ing] original journalism by producing high-quality investigations for press and broadcast media with the aim of educating the public and the media on both the realities of today’s world and the value of honest reporting.” In the US the Center for Investigative Reporting was founded in 1977 and the Center for Public Integrity was set-up in 1989. Other regional centres, often university based, are budding, but those organisations are more an evidence of what’s lacking in commercial media, than an evidence of interest in ground shaking exposures.

Maybe it is our turn to start looking up to the brave investigative journalists of Ukraine, Tunisia, Egypt, the Philippines, India, Peru, Russia and China, just as they are looking up to the founding fathers of contemporary journalism in the West. Most of us have less to lose, but not necessary less muck to rake than they do. Their lack of complacency, their faith in the power of journalism to create better societies and mobilise public discontent with corruption, and their hope of shaping a new, more just, world, could inspire us too.

Jun 08 2012

When a Journalist Becomes a Pain in the System’s Backside

The International Press Institute (IPI) reiterated its support this week for Israeli journalist Uri Blau of Ha’aretz, after Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein declared Blau was to be indicted on charges of possessing classified military documents.

IPI’s Acting Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “The planned indictment of Uri Blau would set a highly unfortunate precedent for press freedom and democracy in Israel.  Journalists should have the right to use leaked documents as sources for their stories when these stories serve the public interest.  We are highly concerned about the ramifications of this decision on the right of the Israeli public to be informed about the actions of state institutions.  We urge Israeli authorities to reconsider and drop all charges against Mr. Blau immediately.”

The affair broke about two years ago while Blau was traveling in China with his partner. Security services forces broke into his flat in search of documents. Anat Kam, a young journalist, was arrested and accused of leaking 2000 secret military documents to Blau, while she was still a solider in active service. Blau used some of the documents to expose, in 2008, a system within which the security services lied to the high court of justice and authorized assassinations of Palestinians suspected of insurgency, while knowing that it was possible to arrest them.

The story itself stirred no outcry in the existing atmosphere in Israel. Blau had sent it, as required in the case of any story with “security implications” to military censorship, which authorized its publication. But the leak was the last straw for the Israeli military, after years of undesirable (from the system’s point of view) exposures by Blau. They decided to go after the journalist and after his source.

Anat Kam was put on trial for charges of no less than espionage related offences, and has recently started serving her sentence of 4.5 years in prison.

When the affair broke Uri Blau came from China to London and stayed there for a few months, as advised by his newspaper Ha’aretz. While here he refused to be interviewed or write for newspapers, despite many pleas and offers. Some friends thought he should stay away from Israel for years, and restart his career in Europe, but he couldn’t bear the idea. “I’m not a dissident”, he said to me. “I’m not even particularly political. I am a journalist, I work at exposing the truth. If I know that the security services are lying to the high court of justice it is my job, and my duty as a citizen, to make this information public”.

As if I needed telling. I have known Uri Blau since he came to work in the Jerusalem local paper Kol Hair, as a police correspondent, and later as a correspondent for military affair. I was the paper’s news editor, and he worked on my team. He was 21 years old, fresh from his military service. It was clear from the first moment that he belonged to that unique species known as an investigative reporter. Those for who a locked door, a secret whispered, a secret kept, are all like red flags to a bull.

And there were many secrets lurking around, which, not many journalists wanted to expose. The second Palestinian uprising, known as the Intifadah, just kicked in, suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians were at their height, and not many Israelis wanted to know about alleged atrocities committed by the army in the West Bank and Gaza.

Most Israeli journalists who cover military affairs rely on Generals as their main sources, but no General would speak to the young scruffy journalist with the long unruly hair. One General even called me to advise me, as an editor, that if my military correspondent wishes to gain “access” he should “tidy himself up”. I said I did not consider it my business to interfere in my correspondent’s hair styling (as I commented here a few weeks ago, things are a bit different one’s reporters have to appear on screen).

But Blau found his sources elsewhere, among low ranking conscripts, closer to him in age, who confided in him. He became an expert at gaining access to classified documents. We used to publish the documents themselves in the newspaper alongside the stories because it helped authenticate them to our suspicious readership, as the IDF spokesperson denied every story we published automatically. Ha’aretz adopted this method when Blau had moved to work there in the early 2000s. In hindsight, publishing photocopies of the original documents might have been a grave mistake, as it provoked the army and possibly assisted it in coming after the source, as they have done in Kam’s case.

Blau is not cut out to remain in exile. He sees himself as an Israeli patriot. After a few months of feeling uprooted and disenfranchised, he went back to Israel, to face the music.

Blau is to stand trial for an offence of holding classified documents, an offence which comes in the Israeli penal code under the wide definition of aggregated espionage. Qualifying the work of a journalist, exposing the truth to his own people, as an act of spying, just as equating the actions of his source to spying, are hardly trademarks of a democracy.

In a statement released Thursday, Jerusalem Journalists Association said the decision to indict a journalist for holding classified documents set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in the country and called on all its members to join a protest on Sunday against Blau’s indictment. A few dozens of Blau’s collegues, Israeli journalists, staged a protest in front of the ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, and a petition of support is being circulated among Israeli and international journalists by the online magazine +972.

Naturally, Blau is not the only journalist in the world to be subjected to this kind of treatment by a government and its security services. Such cases are rare in full veteran democracies, but are certainly not unheard of in transitional democracies. In January Reuters reported that Turkey has been holding 100 members of its news media in prison. Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, investigative journalists were arrested in March 2011 and have been held since in a top-security prison outside Istanbul. They were put on trial for “links to an underground anti-government network”. They were both finally released on bail in March this year, after a year in jail, and the allegations against them are now dwindling. The international outcry raised over their detention seemed to have helped much with their release.

BBC journalist Urunboy Usmonov, a reporter for the BBC World Service, was arrested in June 2011 in Tajikistan and accused of being a member of Hizbut-Tahrir, an extreme Islamist organisation that is banned in the former Soviet republic. He was found guilty despite his staunch denial of all allegations and an international campaign for his release. He has alledgedly been tortured during his pre-trial detention to extract a confession out of him, but he has not yielded.

Torture of journalists is not uncommon. In Bahrain a policewoman is being charged with torturing a female journalist during last year’s crackdown on anti-government protests.

She was accused of torturing the France 24 Bahrain correspondent and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya, Nazeeha Saeed, when she was arrested on May 22 2011.

In Syria the terror hovering over local journalists’s heads is so dire that the world hardly gets anything reported via traditional journalistic sources. Foreign journalists find it impossible to stay in the country for more than a few days without being detained and deported.

Those are, of course, only a few examples. We have written here a few weeks ago about the importance of local journalists and their vulnerability when governments decide to crack down on them. Some governments are deaf to international pressure and outside criticism. But most governments, especially those who maintain a democratic image, can change their tune when facing a message which says “this is not on”. Organisations such as Pen and the IPI, as well as Amnesty International and others, are instructive in raising a voice against the persecution of journalists.

All of us, journalists, are busy people. But wouldn’t it be good if each of us would pick one cause of a fellow journalist in another country, and raise some hell. After all, raising hell is what we do best.

May 30 2012

Stand-Up Journalism

The Frontline Club published its interesting freelancers survey about safety this week. We will get back to the subject of safety on the GRNLive blog soon, but this week I would like to address something we found quite striking before we even reached the main findings. One of the questions asked of the 171 freelancers who took part in the survey was “do you fund your own journalism?”

Photo Credit: Flickr

31.3% answered “almost always” to that question; 20.9% said “often”; 34.1% replied “sometimes” and only 13.7% were able to say “I only work when commissioned”.

This tells us some quite alarming things about who could afford to try their hands at freelance journalism nowadays, and who might be forced to persue other dreams. For me, as a journalist who has not written an un-commissioned piece in hope of selling it in years, if ever, it was a bit of a revelation about the state of the world today. It made me see with painful clarity the extent to which my profession, journalism, has turned similar to my new-ish hobby, stand up comedy, and to the current music scene.

Comedians are by and large self funded for the first two or three years of their career, sometimes for much longer, sometimes forever, unless they give up and drop along the way. They keep day jobs, write their sets during their journeys across the country or around town, run small comedy nights for which they make posters and flyers they get designed and pay for themselves, charge no entry fees to make sure the audience comes in, spend a thousands of pounds taking their shows to the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals every spring and summer, all in service of their dream.

The dream varies – some want to become famous household names, which nowadays involves television stints, others want to become paid club comedians and make a living doing what they enjoy most – performing; many others want to express themselves artistically and enjoy the ride, but they want to get paid for their work, as in the world of comedy, as in all arts, getting paid for what you do indicates that somebody appreciates your work. All those dreams have one thing in common – they all involve an agent who’d be waiting at some turn of the road, recognise their talent, represent them and hence make sure they get salubrious gigs, and even more importantly, get paid for them.

In the world of comedy, as in other performing arts, nobody sneers at the idea or management agencies who represent artists. On the contrary, being represented is a sign of approval which makes promoters more inclined to book a comedian’s services and assume they’ll get their money’s worth in punters’ laughs. Coming to think of it, the same applies for writers and authors. Most publishers refuse to read unsolicited drafts handed to them and demand to only receive applications through literary agencies.

In the world of news the idea of an agency representing journalists like GRNLive, is still sometimes met with suspicion. The business is constantly growing as more and more broadcasters realise that outsourcing the search for on-the-spot freelancers to experts is the way forward. It is just the side of it which involves paying realistic fees for those reporters’ services that some of them are not too keen on. Not to mention (very reasonable if we say so ourselves) commissions.

Our own Henry Peirse often says that journalists deserve to have representation in their dealings with clients like everybody else in the entertainment industry. I used to cringe secretly (as you do when your boss says something cringe-worthy) at this comparison between journalists and entertainers. Journalism is a calling – entertainment is for laughs, I thought rather old fashionably. I still hold that journalism’s calling is to inform and challenge its audience rather than to appease and regale them (then again, so is in my opinion the role of most arts, comedy included). But the emerging pattern created in the news market certainly justifies the comparison. Represented freelances are in the interest of the freelance industry, the broadcasters, and at the end of the day, the audiences. We raise this flag proudly.

May 30 2012

Where are we all going?

Interesting observations about the future of journalism in Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave, and Lucas Graves‘s Introduction to their series of articles The Business of Digital Journalism in Columbia Journalism Review. We found some of their comments hit a cord in our heart, as anybody familiar with GRNlive, or who has been following this blog, could appreciate. “We do have a bias: We think the world needs journalism and journalists. We welcome the tremendous access people now have to data and information, but much of what Americans need to know will go unreported and unexposed without skilled, independent journalists doing their work. That work can include reporting and editing in the traditional way, as well as aggregating information from other sources, or sorting and presenting data to make it accessible and understandable.” And we say, Amen to that, and not only in America.

May 22 2012

Going Native

The word expat always makes the chip on my shoulder rattle a bit. That’s a pity because it is one of the favourite words amongst commissioning foreign news editors. The “expat” in question is not necessarily of the same nationality of the person using the term. More often than not in the news business it is used to describe a reporter who is English, Canadian, American or Australian, namely, an Anglo-Saxon (by upbringing, not by ethnicity, thank god…); a native English speaker.

Broadcasters in English speaking countries in the West have by and large a clear preference for working with expats, and most of GRNLive’s correspondents are indeed of that variety. Their accents are easier on the ear of the audiences, and they are considered to be “beyond suspicion” of local loyalties, political inclinations and social ties which could, allegedly, bias their reporting. Most importantly the attention of local authorities in places with somewhat dubious regimes are less likely to try and threaten them out of doing their work properly.

Our expat correspondents, as with all our correspondents, are great professionals. Most of them work for the larger news publications and have experience of reporting different crisis situations around the world. For reasons of ease and language we tend to recruit them first and look for local correspondents mostly in places where we can not find “expats”. It seems to be our default option. It is also easily done. The expats are well netorked, they are aware of us, they recommend their friends to us, and they often approach us themselves.

But being foreign myself and having worked as a journalist and news editor for many years in my homeland Israel, I am also acutely aware of the advantages of local journalists. They know their countries in and out and they more often than not have perspectives that nobody else does. I’m always happy when one of our local journalists becomes a favourite with one of our clients, as often is the case. This does not imply compromising in any way shape or form on the quality of the reporting or the journalistic standards of its content and delivery. What it does mean is diversifying it and allowing for different perspectives.

Foreign correspondents can generally be divided into three strands: those who get parachuted into the scene as a big story breaks and hop, in the course of their career, from one spot to another; those who spend many years in one place, sometimes getting localised, even naturalising, perhaps because of personal circumstances (marriage etc.), they immerse themselves in the society they live in, learn its culture, politics, and to an extent “go native” while still bearing in mind the home audience to which they are reporting from their newfound, temporary or permanent home; the third is the local correspondent, making use of his or her local knowledge and their command of foreign languages, mainly English, to break into international media.

It is easy to become a partisan for one of those brands, and dismiss others. The truth is that each have their advantages and their potential occupational hazards. The parachuted reporters might lack the in-depth local knowledge but hitting the ground running with a fresh look and curiosity which matches the audience is a great acquired skill, which puts them on one footing with the people “back home”. Being a foreigner who has been living in the country for an extended period gives you localised advantages, long term contacts and knowledge of the social and political system, but with time they are at risk of knowing less about the target audience, or taking a certain amount of knowledge for granted. Some correspondents who have been living in a country for a very long time are suspected of “taking sides” or having very strong convictions regarding the subjects of coverage, though preconceptions are often held by newcomers too. Similar advantages and risks apply for the local correspondents.

We believe that a combination of all three kinds of reporters is what makes our pool of reporters so attractive to broadcasters and publishers. As long as we are all on the same page when it comes to the core values of journalism.

This is why we encourage, and will keep encouraging, local correspondents to join GRNLive. When we offer a correspondent to our clients we do it wholeheartedly, and with full trust in their professionalism. A full grasp of the broadcaster’s language, not only “linguistically” but also culturally, is essential, which is why we also urge producers to brief all our correspondents before they go on air as to the particular needs of the hit. We are also aware that distinct accents are sometimes harder to grasp especially when broadcast conditions are not ideal. At the same time that can give a certain authenticity to the hit. Our correspondents are aware of the importance of enhanced diction and speaking slowly and we are tuned to broadcasters’ feedback on such issues.

The only cases in which we get “protective” of our local correspondents is when we feel the situation in their countries puts them in greater physical danger of being arrested, or worse, than their foreign colleagues. That said, local reporters often show rare bravery and determination. During the post elections clashes in Iran two years ago, we were all in awe of the courage of our correspondent Saeed Kamali-Deghan, who insisted on broadcasting under his real name for all our clients, while the ring of authorities suspicion was closing around him. To our surprise, he actually was able to report relatively freely after most of his foreign counterparts were arrested and thrown out of the country. But we often debated the level of risk we could afford to let him expose himself too. At the end of the day, however, we felt it was his choice and sense of mission which should have the final say. The last thing we wanted to do was add to the oppression of free speech that so many in Iran were out to protest against and which Saeed was reporting on.

It also seems that the gaps are becoming smaller with every day that goes by. The globalised world, with all its perils and shortcomings, makes us more and more aware of each other. So much so that we are often tempted to believe that the world is one community which includes everybody who has a Facebook account, speaks English and owns an iPhone or worse. This brings great advantages in our ability to know the world around us better, but it is our mission as journalists to keep reminding ourselves that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants still live outside the realms of this holy trinity. All our correspondents, locals and expats, help achieve this goal. As the world becomes smaller “inside knowledge” and “outside perspective” may become more and more similar, and the ability of local correspondents to raise a voice from within into the international debate will become more and more significant. We will be there to provide it.

May 16 2012

The New News

At an age where anybody can take pictures and videos and everybody, with the sole global exception of aisy mother, can upload and broadcast materials from their own living room (or indeed, bedroom), to anybody who cares to watch, the borders between journalists and sources tend to blur. This subject has been addressed here before, but recent events have brought it back to our attention.

The Arab Spring provided a vast platform for citizen’s journalism, especially in Egypt, where despite massive media presence, there was a hunger for information from the ground – from the sitdowns at Tahrir Square to localised events that could only be caught on an activist’s camera.

The appetite for citizen-produced material from Syria derived from simpler realities. Foreign journalists simply can not stay in Syria for long or operate there freely. They often have to rely on photos, snippets, videos and bits of information recorded at great personal risk by local sources. This information, either delivered in person or posted via social media or other online vehicles, fed quite a few reports on global media outlets.

The contribution of such evidence to the atrocities taking place in Syria is immense, and the people who put their lives on the line capturing and posting such proof deserve our admiration. They also deserve to be paid for the fruit of their efforts if it gets used by established media. But all this does not make them, necessarily, journalists. This, of course, does not apply only to “citizen journalists” in Egypt or Syria, but everywhere. They are sources, eyewitnesses, commentators; they are essential for journalism to take place, but in order for their contributions to turn into journalism, two things need to be brought forward, verification and context.

In the last few months there have been more and more complaints from journalists regarding “forged” or “biased” visual and textual material posted online. Pictures said to have been taken in Homs were in fact taken elsewhere in Syria. Edited videos from different places in the world make stories seem different to what they are; governments and other interested bodies are paying for “citizen journalists” to post material. Many activists engage in journalism, and while all journalists are also citizens who have the right to take a stand on their country’s future, their double role as journalists and activists sometimes blurs the lines between the two. Naturally, the actions of some should not implicate all. The problem in the concept of ‘citizen journalism’ is not in the good or bad intentions of its practitioners, but in the scrutiny to which their materials are subjected to before being aired.

More and more evidence indicates Saudi funding for Syrian activists releasing information. Does it make this information wrong? Certainly not, but transparency is of the essence and verification is vital. Activists have the right to have their say as much as governments, but knowing where a piece of information originates from is necessary in the quest to validate it. More and more NGOs are becoming news providers, relying on sources on the ground. Many of them mean well. Others intentions are blurry. But there are ways to add this information up, follow it through, cross source and get to the facts. This is the journalist’s job, as it always has been.

Established media has its own mechanisms of verification and it is exposed to public review and to libel suits. This does not necessarily prevent cases of severe misconduct such as that being gradually revealed in the News International scandal. But still, the rules of professional behavior are set, the ethos is there and breaking it has consequences. Newspapers, websites and broadcasters’ credibility are their main assets, and they have a vested interest in protecting that by meeting their obligations when it comes to verifying materials and putting them in context.

At the same time, it is private people around the world who in recent years have been constantly delivering immensely important untold stories from under-covered corners of the world, or from the under-covered corners of well covered stories. Human rights organisations giving cameras to people around the world made a vital contribution which enabled the voiceless to be heard,  seen and to expose wrongs committed against them. Individuals taking charge of documenting their own stories found a way around the established news agenda straight to the hearts and minds of world public opinion, sometimes harnessing masses around the world to demand change. Yet, there’s a line between participation in the international information free-market, and journalism.

New kind of services in the media market are presenting an interesting attempt to bridge the gap. Storyful.com offers verification services by a team of professional journalists, and explain their ethos and modus operandi in their interesting blog at http://blog.storyful.com/

Is this the future of journalism? Teams of professionals picking up the clues and evidence spread around the World Wide Web by global citizens? That’s a challenging prospect for everybody involved in journalism. The old way of professionals sniffing at ‘amateurs’ is not going to cut it. Especially with 10 million active Twitter accounts in the UK alone today and counting. We should embrace the wealth of information streaming constantly our way, but it is our job, as ever, to provide the mechanisms for creating real journalism out of it. Picking the fresh trail, following it to its sources, verifying it and giving it context. In this sense, all is new, yet nothing is new, under the sun.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with our community.

By: Daphna Baram

May 10 2012

When the Camera is Too Candid

Live broadcast, by its nature, has its funny moments, whether in studio or out in the field. Equipment not working, mics that should be off suddenly coming to life, props collapsing, or wild animals breaking into the frame, and it is all hilarious, as long as it happens to another reporter or another broadcaster.

All reporters have their own stories of embarrassing/funny/slightly humiliating moments on air. The ones I can remember are an Israeli radio morning news anchor trying to crack a joke on the morning after the Olympic bid by asking me, at 7am London time, “so, which pub in east London are you in now, Daphna Baram?” to which I replied far too candidly “I’m in my east London bed, Gabi”. 15 minutes later the 7/7 bombings hit, but my phone did not ring again. Clearly Israeli broadcasters realised that they’d disturbed my sleep quite enough for one morning.

Another day I was called into the Al Jazeera studios in London to commentate on the case of an Israeli citizen who was charged with rape on the premise that he had misled his alleged victim regarding his identity by claiming he was Jewish. I was picnicking with friends on Hampstead Heath when the call came in, and said I’ll oblige if they pick me up and give me a shirt to replace the rather scruffy vest I had on. Once I was whisked into the Knightsbridge studio, a young employee jumped me, put me in a chair, and said “you are on in 30 seconds”. When I reminded her of the shirt business she sized me up rather scornfully and said “all the shirts we have here are for our presenters. Have you seen them? None of them is over size 8”. A make up artist who rushed in managed to comb some of the hay out of my hair during countdown, but I’m sure a few viewers that day were wondering who’s the hobo.

At GRNLive we often find ourselves trying to coordinate a hit while avoiding (or not) a catastrophe in the making. On the day of Muamar Gadhafi’s death one of our biggest clients managed to secure a satellite feed point for a short amount of time. We managed to find our correspondent who miraculously was staying at the same hotel as the feedpoint. The reporter did not know where in the hotel the studio was, and we were struggling to find out. All that could be heard in GRNLive’s offices was shouting “Just run! RUN!” as the correspondent ran along the hotel’s corridors, desperately looking for the right door while trying to get her lipstick on. The time slot was coming to an end and we had been watching the television screen desperately, when to our relief our reporter suddenly emerged on screen all prim, if breathless, and delivered a perfect account of events.

In Tbilisi in 2008, during the Russian invasion, we had a call from one of our clients asking if we could kindly ask our correspondent to “keep her hair tied back next time she goes on camera”. It transpired that the correspondent was reporting from an exposed outdoor feedpoint, and her hair kept flying into her face. While I was making the hair-design consultancy phone call others were watching the video and assessing the magnitude of the disaster. “It did look a bit like an episode of Desperate Housewives” she concluded.

The gaffs are not always coming from the correspondent’s end. The studio often provides its own mess-ups. One of our correspondents in Baghdad before the fall of the city, was asked by a news anchor whether the female minder assigned to him was attractive. The reporter, taken by surprise by the audacity of the question, went mute for a few long seconds.

YouTube offers a large selection of awkward and funny news moments, collected mishaps, assorted on-air accidents, angry reporters following misunderstandings with studio, racist gaffs and hiccups that are the result of slightly blue minded anchors.

After spending an afternoon of chuckles in the office reminiscing and watching broadcast glitches, we decided to declare GRNLive’s correspondents funny moments competition. Tell us about yours, attach a video or audio if you have them (but tell us the story anyway), and the best story (chosen by the impartial light minded GRNLive team) will win an iPod Touch (terribly useful for shooting footage and recording audio, among other things). Don’t be shy – a giggle shared is a giggle multiplied!

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